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Inglorious Banthas: How Gaming’s Camaraderie Saved Me From the Abyss

José A. Morales | StrawHatRican, U.S. Air Force Veteran

Peddling Cartridges

Long before Dante and Randall clerked the Quick Stop and RTS Video, I had the privilege of being raised in a video store long ago on the shores of Puerto Rico. Between my rounds of Street Fighter, Ghosts N Goblins, and whatever arcade I could get my hands on at the local pizza parlors, I would come home to a library of film and cinema. My father, savvy as a businessman can be, asked me what games I’d like at the store for rental, and I had my pick. We scoured other stores around the island and places like KB Toys and Toys R Us. Sometimes hits, sometimes duds. In my findings, I kept yearning for the game I could play with all my friends. Two-player fighting games were almost mandatory assignments to understand the language we spoke back then. As teenagers in a sun-bathed colony – we had already filled out the “outside play” quota. Worlds within worlds expected us. Some that even forewarned us they were “too dangerous to go alone” into. And off we cast a mighty shield and sword to defeat all the challenges we could see, mired by the demons that began transforming inside of us. 

At first, it was just boys playing games, nothing more. Just buds hanging out after school, exploring stories, challenging old strategies, besting each other in the newest incarnation of whatever Capcom’s fighting game flavor of the month may have been that week. We pondered when the discs came, and the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn collided in such fury that we all had to take an individual path in a console war we had no interest in. We wanted to play everything across the systems together.  

Before 9/11, we had dabbled in some online play that had been prevalent in the PC realm, but consoles (the Xbox was a distant future during this time) could not muster what we needed. Our merry band of ninjutsu artists, comic book fans, cinema addicts, and river fishin’ kids from the civilized jungles of Ceiba had to choose a future – one that eventually brought me to college, where my relationship with gaming evolved once I found the big wide world of import gaming. But after 9/11 and the training that took me across the sea to Texas, my friends and family would change.

cinema seats with two having popcorn and drinks in them

One is truly the loneliest number.

Finding Azeroth

By the time I had fully snuggled myself into my first unit and accounted for the newly made friends who came over to Wyoming with me, it was time to establish a new gaming family. It was during this time that I enjoyed the large communities found in MMORPGs. Specifically, I found both Final Fantasy XI Online alongside the world heavyweight champion and patron saint of MMOs – World of Warcraft. While perusing the Tolkien-esque environments in the Night Elf city capital of Darnassus, I had an epiphany. I wanted more to come to these worlds with me, and as it turns out, I didn’t have to press people much to join me. Amidst the MMO explosion was a concurrent event in the console space, on November 15, 2002, the Xbox Live gaming service, connecting millions of users around the world (I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of those servers live and in person!), had released and congregated a tsunamic following of gamers that now shared the online space – communities sprung up everywhere – from the MSN Chat Rooms of old to the sparkiest of MySpace pages. This is thanks to a titanic effort by Microsoft to fuse the bridge that separated the “console space” with their Xbox 360 release that same year.

The boys were ecstatic. 

Specifically, the boys on Flight 11.

a complicated image of a  game with lots of pop up text , stats and numbers

Do not ask me how I kept track of all of this…

Like a fever dream, we all linked up on our time off and had all manner of tournaments. Some were filled with the screams of Master Chief adorning the living rooms we inevitably would take over in our quest to find peace. A feeling of peace in the chaos of fantasy worlds that demand some form of retribution, a princess to be saved, a galaxy to correct. Others simpler, fists of untold origins across faces in the streets where fighting took place across arcades, home shift joysticks, and now, communities within communities – precursors of the Reddit spaces now collected in real-time. 

While searching for that peace, I attempted to go back to school to find myself, but the pressures of fatherhood and the military service I had endowed myself with long ago bore me no fruit. Feeling helpless in a sunken marriage anchored to my military service, I decided to disconnect from my chosen family. The ones that saw my reaction to the fellow men and women I had the pleasure of serving alongside, but also, tragically – bury and honor.

After leaving the Air Force, I struggled to find my footing between jobs in Colorado and Wyoming. The inevitable defeat of my marriage at the time, sullen by my service and the personal daemons I had yet to identify by name, took me on a journey where I eventually succumbed to addressing my personal health, specifically my fragile mental health. Within the abyss of depression, anxiety, and whatever other illness had befallen me on that particular fall – I had found a community and an enemy to slay.

My marching orders took me across Azeroth, to the steps of Icecrown Citadel, somewhere in the continent of Northrend, where (as a holy paladin) I etched my name in the server as one of the few to have conquered the Lich King with friends I had made across realms. Friends I hosted in Fort Collins, who returned the favor, hosting me in Denver, Cheyenne, San José, and other cities where my friendships allowed for those connections to survive across battlefields of old and new. It was a shame some of us left to eventually become mercenaries for Sith lords in a galaxy far, far away, leaving Azeroth in 2011 and reforming as the Jedi hunting “Inglorious Banthas” guild in December in the questionably programmed Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Leveling UP

Now, there were veterans of a new war. Past the survival of my time in Puerto Rico, subsequent military service, and self-inflicted financial strife – I now had these friends, these cheering onlookers who now supported my dreams and well-being. It was this fusion of post-military camaraderie that kept me in the loop of certain words – alongside the familial relationships I could retain with nephews and extended family abroad.